Who is on the plum tree?
Camp Mangazie is located close to the town of Mangazie and situated in the north east of Niamey, capital of Niger. From the Plan International office in Niamey to the camp, it takes a party of humanitarian practitioners 2.5 hours to traverse the 110 klms. The first 70 of these are tarmacked; the last 40 Klms are stone-paved in very bad repair. En route, Team Doug pass classic African small towns and villages. The landscape is mostly flat, the red sandy soil parched. Small trees sparsely litter the landscape. Rough shrubs’ leaves eke their existence too high for goat to reach. Everything edible has been consumed.
Early winds come as heralds of rainy season to raise dust that looks like fog, to soften sunlight and turn blue sky to yellow/white.
The rains have started. A few shallow pools have already formed in little valleys and depressions. These are new, sudden watering holes for cattle and goats. They also serve as bathing pools for small boys who will be boys. The excitement of boyhood is hard to kill.
Except for near the towns and villages, the road is almost deserted. Goats and cattle force travellers to slow vehicles and make way for African time. Animals cross the parched road unaware of the urgency waiting just a little further along the almost useless track. Many animals are unaccompanied and in the middle of nowhere; thereby, this sight is worth remarking. Fields, for want of a better description, look as though they have been dug in expectancy of planting, not in full cultivation but in simple rows of little holes where soil has been disturbed, opened to take in rain. Other, dry-land farming techniques are visible where small, concrete crescent mounds are built to catch and hold water. Available water must penetrate parched, cracked soil.
Approaching Camp Mangazie, Team Doug’s eyes are assaulted by a settlement of blue tarps. These make-shift round, little tents are scattered through an almost treeless terrain. Stopping in the middle of the tent clusters in front of a large white western tent with UNHCR written on it, Team Doug is greeted by a group of immaculately dressed men and women. All the major relief and humanitarian agencies are there. They swarm in welcome, as if from nowhere. The camp manager speaks great English and works for Islamic Relief Committee, (IRC). The camp is a hive of activity, even in the blinding sun. Each agency is focussed on a specific task, competent, experienced in such things as drought, disease, famine and displacement. They have seen it all before and have developed institutional learning and capacity along with particular specialisations. Efforts are overseen and coordinated under the UNHCR umbrella.
MSF (Medecins Sans Frontieres) focus on hygiene, building toilets and wash areas, as well as overseeing mother and child nutrition programmes, which are, in turn, run by local authorities. World Vision repair a much needed, older well. Oxfam had already dug a new bore well and had established an open well for animals to drink before the camp was even there. Water is always a big problem; the one good well is used night and day and barely keeps pace with the needs of more than 3,000 people. Plan International is working long-term in the local town and has been organising committees, liaising with the community and learning quickly how to manage a refugee camp in preparation for the new one that must now be created in Ayourou.
The heat is overwhelming. A strong steady wind sucks moisture from everything including Team Doug. The team does not sweat at all. The landscape is the closest thing to desert though technically is supposed to be Sahel, a wide belt separating Sahara from Savannah. Doug reports that he does not know how people survive such an inhospitable place. He wonders how people ever manage to eke an existence from land such as this.
Though rains have started, not a blade of grass is visible. Usually, once the rains come, African soil leaps into life. Seed can remain dormant for as much as four year cycles, sometimes more, then miraculously shoot into sudden existence. But this cycle has been too long.
In the camp, the absence of men is obvious. Questioning this, Team Doug is told that the men have migrated with their animals further north. Some have gone to Mali to fight with the rebels. Strong ties exist between the Nigerien and Mali peoples who live just on the other side of the border. Some families offer Mali refugees shelter because of these ties; even though, they have so little food for themselves. Plan International is aware of this. When doing food distributions, they will target larger households already sheltering refugees, and give them more food.
The little blue tents are temporary, not appropriate for habitation. The tarps are water proof, but are too small, too hot, and too expensive. These resilient people need what they were used to. Being semi-nomadic, they usually build from local materials, including animal hides. Building materials must allow air to move through hut, as reed mats do or cloth. Strong twine is needed to tie everything together.
WFP (World Food Programme) is supplying the food. Maize, beans and some oil is being distributed in the local town in rotation, so queues are not too long. Maize is a problem; it is too hard and difficult to grind. Sourcing other grains in the region is difficult. Rice would be preferable, as it is easy to prepare. Team Doug is looking for rice to purchase. A grinding mill might also be necessary but must be found, budgeted for, purchased, set up and managed. This takes time.
In the mean time families do not complain and spend hours in the blistering sun grinding maize by hand.
Being close to the town has benefits, as clinic and special feeding centres are close. These are well run. MSF works closely with local health-care services and insures high standards and sufficient capacity. The drawbacks of being near the town are that there is no farm land available for refugees to cultivate. They will remain totally dependent on food distributions. Being semi-nomadic and having no men in the camp poses yet another barrier to growing crops.
The welcome rain also courts disease. Stagnant water breeds mosquitoes; malaria kills millions of African children. Cholera spreads through dirty water; washing areas and wells must be kept clean. This is the next challenge that must be addressed in this parched and starving land.
More to come…